Class Appropriation, or How the Bourgeoisie Commodifies the Art and Culture of the Proletariat. A Discussion Between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queer Art

Essay, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 88.0


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Class Appropriation, or How the Bourgeoisie Commodifies the Art and Culture of the Proletariat, A Discussion Between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queer Art:

Works Cited:


To Asma, Joan, Brian, Mom, Dad, Samantha, and those who doubted me throughout the years. Without your doubt, my drive wouldn’t exist.

Class Appropriation, or How the Bourgeoisie Commodifies the Art and Culture of the Proletariat, A Discussion Between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queer Art:

The role of art has often been shaped by those who have created it, outlets of expression, escapes from reality, or intense talent. However, the role of the patron has since influenced the creation of art. When art collectors are willing to spend millions upon millions of dollars for a piece of art originally created merely to mock the exact process that they are buying into, where does art end and business begin? Art collectors, or those who possess enough wealth to fetishize the work upon which artists have slaved over, disregard and erase the proletarian culture that art is often born from. The Bohemian artist is merely a tool of the bourgeoisie, producing work that will bring the art collector much more wealth than the artist can ever imagine. Through a detailed reading of Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party alongside the discussion of Walt Whitman tied with an analysis of the works of queer artists, such as Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, I seek to reveal the complex relationship between the bourgeois business world of art and the proletariat artist, further commenting on the appropriation and erasure of minorities by those who fetishize art merely for the sake of inflating their own visage of wealthiness.

Chiefly, what is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat? Marx famously lays out the intricate manipulation that the proletariat suffers at the hands of those with great wealth. Wages should reflect product, that is to say that concept of a profit margin held by a business owner fails to compensate the worker fairly. The bourgeoisie has a totalitarian control on capital, any object created by a worker is merely in the possession of the business owner. This commodification of person by the bourgeoisie alienates the proletariat, draining the life out of the meager worker and enslaving production. For why should the living, breathing, worker be treated as capital itself, manipulated merely to create more and more capital for the business owner? Nonetheless, Marx is not claiming that this relationship of manipulation is anything new, but rather that history is plagued with the constant capitalization of life itself, with the bourgeoisie consistently seeking more and more wealth, while the proletariat unknowingly is forced into this crusade, with no benefit for the working individuals. As Marx specifically states, “[n]o sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc” (Marx and Engels 212). That is to say that systematically speaking, the proletariat is chained into the cage of the bourgeoisie. It is not merely the business owner that takes advantage of the alienation of the proletariat, but also every bourgeoisie who is able to manipulate the needs of the proletariat in ways to make profit, regardless of the role of production. Thus, making the rich even more wealthy off the backs of the worker with no room for a concept such as a middle class.

With this basic understanding of Marx, I find that this concept of the alienation of the worker to be central to the dehumanizing factors that manipulation leads to. The worker is alienated within their own body searching for any signs of life. To this regard, this is where Whitman enters the discussion. Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry echoes this goal of finding life in a conception of industrial modernity. Specifically with lines 23 - 25:

“Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river, and the bright flow, I was refreshed” (Whitman 23 - 25).

Here, Whitman projects himself and the spirit of man onto the things that we all observe, forcing the individual to try to escape alienation through the common bond of being itself. This observation connects deeply to the ways in which the world of art is viewed, that is to say that the common pleasure of indulging in an artwork has the ability to unify those who feel most alienated. Thus, further explaining the power of art as a tool of production, a production of unity and the birth of a common bond. However, Whitman focuses on the free, observing objects that all can see, regardless of class standing. He discusses common emotions that the proletariat may feel in an alienating experience, such as being enveloped in a crowd. This is where Marx, Whitman, and Art speak to each other, that the proletariat can be free from alienation through the common observation of experiences. However, the bourgeoisie realizes that this common observation may be sold, further leading to increased commodification of art and the emotions that spring from it. Private art collections are brought together that limit the proletariat from escaping the alienating circumstances of industrial working life. Here the art owner can even go further creating exhibits and spheres in which only the bourgeois patron is allowed in, charging absurd fees for admission and creating an atmosphere where art is turned into accolades by those who collect it. Alienation perpetuates the cycle of the art-capitalist complex, fueling artists to create work, while continuing to allow the bourgeoisie to commodify it, in turn causing more alienation and more art to be created as capital and not as a form of expression.

It so often seems that those proletarians who are also even rejected from the world of social acceptable forms of production, such as standard blue collar work, are destined to fall into a completely different form of expression. That is to say, within the production of art. The proletariat or minority artist shapes their art by putting meaning behind the beautiful expression that art is able convey. However, it is so often that this meaning is forgotten by the formalist appearance of the art itself. Ergo transforming art to be seen as purely an object to fetishize rather than a living item of expression and emotion. The artist can then manipulated into a tool of production, producing art merely for the purchase by a patron. Within this realm, the patron controls the work that the artist creates. Originally the factors that drive artists, such as education, taste, and life factors are transitioned to the idea of what will make the most money in resale. Thus, causing a flooding of the art world with mass market artworks created as capital with little to no artistic meaning. Beyond this, through the hyper-capitalization of artwork into capital, the original “artist” in question may in turn eventually form into its own conception of the bourgeoisie, chiefly within the case of Andy Warhol and his quite literal Factory in which all of his works were produced. Warhol employed artists around him and sought after musicians, actors, and writers who he thought could create artwork that he could sell for the most amount of money. Warhol employed these artists for low wages while selling artworks with his signature on it for thousands of dollars. This is so often seen within the realm of celebrity artists, in which artworks created within their studio are touched by many hands, not just by the celebrity who signs the bottom of the canvas and banks the most money.

Building on Warhol, I seek to look towards queer art and culture as a prime example of the commodification of the response to alienation. The mere concept of queerness is birthed through the complete rejection of societal norms, in which those within the LGBTQ+ community rebel and seek to form their own norms for their own lifestyles. Additionally, throughout much of history openly queer people have been included in the proletariat, while influential bourgeoisie queers were forced to remain closeted within the realm of traditional society. It is only of late, as being queer has been accepted in many areas of the United States, that it is possible for queer people to be openly queer within the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, queer culture was not recognized as a culture by society, seen simply as the outsides of society, queer people seeked to identify and express themselves in new ways. Countless queer artists are influenced while trying to escape from the alienation of being queer: Robert Mapplethorpe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Tom of Ford, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Frida Kahlo, and so many queer youths who journaled their thoughts away, or secretly doodled naked pictures to cope with being different. However, within the transformation of the Gay Rights movement, objects that were once seen as completely outside of society are transformed into capital and placed within the mainstream. It is as if being unpopular and eccentric has become popular in a form of a prepackaged conception of rebellion. Artists who were once seen as trash, or never seen at at all, because they were queer are now viewed as assets to the bourgeoisie. Additionally, some of these artists who started as complete rejections of society are now able to ascend to the bourgeoisie through the commodification of their own work, specifically connecting to Warhol. Corporations can now commodify queerness by utilizing camp and other forms of queer culture and broadcasting it to the world, claiming ownership of a culture that was created completely outside of the mainstream (Tinkcom). Queer pride parades are now overrun with corporate sponsors who seek to display how open minded they are, while rejecting everyone in the queer community besides cis-homosexual white men. Capitalism is not the friend of queer culture, or art as a whole. Emotions and expressions cannot be easily as sold as a canvas full of color, the bourgeoisie has no regard for this matter and continues to seek capital. The artist, the artwork, and the culture of the artist become the capital of the art collector, or celebrity artist fueling materialism and rejecting the proletariat's craving for life in response to constant alienation.

To most, a common thread between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queerness would be unheard of. However, within a focus on alienation and the commodification of self they all enter a discussion with each other. Marx explains why Whitman feels alienated, and how the proletariat’s life is fundamentally owned by the bourgeoisie. Whitman tries to cope with alienation through the common observation alongside other proletarians, as the bourgeoisie realizes this, they seek to commodify observation itself, further encroaching on the lives of the proletariat, turning radical artwork created as an escape from reality into a mass-market buy and sell object for the everyday consumer, destroying the meaning and emotion that the proletariat seeks to express. Who owns art? How does one control the ideas that art may convey? The bourgeoisie continues to commodify as much as possible, even the little forms of expression that the proletariat may have.

Works Cited:

Marx, Karl, and Eugene Kamenka. "Manifesto of the Communist Party."The Portable Karl Marx. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983. N. pag. Print.

Tinkcom, Matthew. Working like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, and Cinema. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. New York: Paravion, 2011. Print.


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Class Appropriation, or How the Bourgeoisie Commodifies the Art and Culture of the Proletariat. A Discussion Between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queer Art
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Benjamin Grubner (Author), 2016, Class Appropriation, or How the Bourgeoisie Commodifies the Art and Culture of the Proletariat. A Discussion Between Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, and Queer Art, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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